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Obiwu is a literary name for Obi Iwuanyanwu, director of the writing center at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, United States. His publications include Achebe’s Poetic Drive and The History of Nigerian Literature, 1772-2006, both published in 2006.

 South African Hunger and Literary Excess

(Reading Roy Campbell, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee)

[Abstract: This essay depicts the baffling shock of méconnaissance at every turn of the panoptical lens of the South African landscape. If sublimation is the highest point of the low as Jacques Lacan posits, South African literature represents a primary candidate for its consistent mourning of a glory (Lacanian agalma) that never was. The best writers, including Roy Campbell, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, are often lost in the miraginary (qua chimerical) borders of life and art in South Africa that Coetzee in particular always-already indulges in a Europhilic dance of depravity that hails the hegemony of anthropomorphism and lycanthropy over sense and decency.]  

Their first secret is an intimate, sexual, family secret, a trauma of begetting which speaks a whole history of racial division (apartheid as sexual apartheid as much as, if not before, anything else).
- Jacqueline Rose

For, where the legacy of apartheid has been one of domination, a sense of self is bound up with cultural patterns at the broadest level. Similarly, where black and white identities have been ravaged through false definitions imposed and fixed by systemic racial obsession, another sense of self is critical to the notion of an alternative future.
- Stephen Clingman

South African literature is a literature in bondage … shot through as they are with feelings of homelessness and yearnings for a nameless liberation. It is a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation.
- J. M. Coetzee

In a study of inter-racial relationships in three novels, the South African writer, Lewis Nkosi, posits that human relationships are formed and quickly blighted by an atmosphere of moral confinement (1). This paper examines the historical hunger of South African literature. It makes the case that racial obsession, and by inference sexual excess, overdetermines South Africa’s literary production.

The preceding epigraphs support the view of apartheid as a cultural excess that circumscribes creative imagination. In affirming this reading in her study of literature and the archive in South Africa, Sarah Nuttal posits that to write one’s story is always “to enter into the order of corruption – corruption in the sense of a destroyed purity and thus of an excess” (296). She supports her postulation by citing the checkered history of race, sex, and madness in Bessie Head’s autobiographical legend: “The reason for my (Head’s) peculiar birthplace (Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital) was that my mother was white, and she had acquired me from a black man. She was adjudged insane and committed to the mental hospital while pregnant.” In an epigraph to her short story selection Jump and Other Stories, Nadine Gordimer provides a disturbing visual of excess in her description of the short story: “To write one is to try to express from a situation in the exterior or interior world the life-giving drop – sweat, tear, semen, saliva – that will spread an intensity on the page, burn a hole in it.” The impact of this statement in relation to South Africa and her literature will become clear towards the end of this paper. The operative terms for this study are, therefore, derived from the phrases “sexual apartheid” (Rose 107), “racial obsession” (Clingman 9), and “torsions of power” (Coetzee, “Jerusalem” 98). “Excess” in Lacanian terms is variously defined as objet petit a, leftover, rupture, pus, scar, shell, effigy of a mortal wound which is a representation of a representation.

Select poetry of Roy Campbell, Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People, and J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace will be used for this study. Campbell (1901-1957), Gordimer (1923-), and Coetzee (1940-) are chosen because their work traverses the entire development of twentieth century South African politics and culture. The three are also among the most prominent of their generations of South African writing of the past one hundred years. All three are, moreover, individually and collectively relevant to the issue of South African racial hunger. Abiola Irele notes that South African writing assumes a new direction with the work of settler white writers. “The heightened sense of involvement with the particular experience of the black community in relation to the political and social circumstances of the racial divide that governs life within the South African context, gives a distinct quality of reference to their work” (Irele 60).

Foregrounding the conflictual impulses in white South African writing are the master narratives of the conquest of space and nature and the inheritance of the earth and its riches. The primitive material accumulation – which was the drive behind the occupation of South Africa as a settler colony – forecloses the deadly contestation between the native black African population and the alien white invaders. The severity of the racial conflict was overdetermined by the commitment of the powerful white minority to objectify the overwhelmed black majority. The vicious design of linguistic definition and political subjection marks the inhuman legacy of racism and its apartheid extension.

Relative to the South African hunger is the attendant moral stalemate that is the residue of the abandonment of human responsibility. To hunger implies the instinctual compulsion to eat and the satisfaction of desire. To “eat the other” as has been demonstrated by generations of theorists – including Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida, Diana Fuss, Peter Hulme, Alan Rice, and Crystal Bartolovich – is the phenomenology of consumption that organizes the cannibal culture of racism and slavery, apartheid and colonialism, capitalism and globalized consumerism (Hulme 1-38). Peter Theroux concurs with this reading when he asks, in his travelogue Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia: “Does anyone with a non-profit interest in a foreign land not owe it largely to the sexual pull of the culture and its people?” (Rieff 249) The North African travelogues of Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde, as well as Edward Said’s reading of “orientalism,” tend to bear out the reading of apartheid as a sexual perversion. The present essay grapples with the haunting question: What vision does the South African racial hegemony portend for the future beyond the machinery of decay?

Campbell’s poetry is broadly concerned with the subject of purity and violence. In the first instance, the image of innocence and unconscious withdrawal predisposes the poet’s personae to a prophetic vision of an imminent emergence with staggering consequences. This, in Campbell’s poetry, is the symbolic location of the conquered and subdued blacks in pre-apartheid South Africa of the early twentieth century. In the second instance, recurrent stirrings of war and expropriation forebode the ultimate collapse of the apartheid regime. A veteran of both the Spanish War and the Second World War, Campbell’s work signifies the political activism of the outsider. As shown ahead, his poetic shaft lampoons the simpleminded logic of racial bigotry.

Gordimer’s July’s People is a novel of the apartheid era, beginning with the rise to power of the minority Afrikaner National Party in 1948 and ending with the militant resurgence of the African National Congress. In telling the story of the relationship between the black servant, July, and his employer white family, the Smales, Gordimer explores the unbalanced and volatile relationship between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. She lays emphasis on language and discourse communities to demonstrate how differences in verbal communication delineate the opulent white bourgeois world from the slippery landscape of the black proletariat. Though Jewish, Gordimer was a pioneer activist of the anti-apartheid movement, and her July’s People is a counter-narrative of the social upheaval in her country.

Coetzee’s Disgrace brings up the South African story to a head. In many ways, it mimics Gordimer’s July’s People. Whereas Gordimer describes the revolt leading up to the collapse of apartheid, Coetzee describes the dilemma of power shift. The tumultuous rage that announces its conceptual stirrings in July’s People reaches uncontrollable peak in Disgrace. If July’s People showcases the making of the human beast, Disgrace illustrates the triumph of human bestiality. If July’s People is a naturalist fiction, Disgrace is the ultimate post-naturalistic fiction – just as Campbell’s pastoralism is a camouflage of the early phase of naturalism.

The persistent exploration of human animality is one of the major differences between South African literature and the literature of the rest of Africa, except to some extent East Africa. The naturalism that is signified in the novels of Meja Mwangi shows the link between East African literature and South African literature in terms of the longevity and impact of white settler presence in both regions. That naturalism remained a recurrent motif in South African literature till the end of the twentieth century shows how far behind the moral range of modern man that the apartheid policy took the society. The aptly titled Disgrace is a perfection of the literary subgenre of depravity. Its genealogy includes Peter Abrahams’s novel Mine Boy; Alex La Guma’s novels A Walk in the Night, The Stone Country, and The Time of the Butcherbird; Dennis Brutus’s poetry collections Sirens, Knuckels, Boots and Letters to Martha, and Coetzee’s own earlier novel Life & Times of Michael K.

Campbell represents the subject of animalism in his narrative poem “A Veld Eclogue: The Pioneers” (22-26). The Afrikaners (“Boers”) who settled at the Cape in 1652 have taken over the entire land of South Africa and quickly relapsed into laziness. In the poem, Campbell caricatures his white compatriots as “Johnny and Piet … one Durban-born, the other Dutch.” The two simple shepherds lie in a vast wasteland where they watch only one jointly-owned Nanny-goat. Campbell sarcastically describes the two as lying “On the bare veld where nothing grows/ Save beards and nails and blisters on the nose.” Rain does not fall, but the poor Nanny-goat waits patiently as Johnny and Piet “switched the flies/ Or paused to damn a passing nigger’s eyes.” Otherwise the poet-personae do nothing but hack jiggers from their gnarled toes, sleep, loudly sing the “smutly” folksong “Ferreira” for jumping baboons. They engage in the religious debauchery of “Nagmaal” and hold a special rally of the “Empire Group.” Campbell signifies that these Boer pioneers are unwashed and smelly lay-about who are clumsy horsemen and very bad hunters whose singular distinction is in sprawling across “boundless spaces.” Though they venomously despise each other, they are passion-driven in their joint hatred for blacks: “One touch of tar-brush makes the whole world kin.”

Campbell’s poetic portraiture attempts to reverse centuries of racist anthropology which persistently reserves taxonomical ordering to black Africans. He believes that the colonial is mentally and physically superior to the European, thereby contradicting preceding European travelogue which compares South African blacks to cattle, hogs, and tortoise (Butler and Mann 76). Buffon’s eighteenth century speculative anthropology relates the Khoi (“Hottentots”) to apes, in tandem with a report of April 14, 1653, in which the South Africa settler-pioneer Van Riebeeck refers to the “Hottentots” as “dull, stupid, lazy, and stinking” (White Writing 19, 21). Campbell’s poetic vision, therefore, controverts the Europhilic narratives of Joseph Conrad, Hannah Arendt, and Coetzee which suggest that Europeans in Africa tend to degenerate with their new environment.

Gordimer extends Campbell’s vision by positing that degeneration is both a product of communal politics and a global human condition. She depicts rootlessness in July’s People through the diachronic binarism of settler-native, urban-rural, master-servant, oppressor-oppressed, white-black, bourgeois-peasant, and adult-infant relationships. The gradual breakdown of law and order engendered by the contradictions of these dichotomies illumines Gordimer’s dissatisfaction with the bleak social formation of her South Africa. The unwholesome experience of the white family of Maureen and Bam Smales and their three young children is a pointer to Gordimer’s politics. To escape the raging black revolution in the Johannesburg metropolis, the Smales accept the invitation of their black servant, July, to move to his hometown in a remote agrarian village. Their fortunes quickly tumble from the affluence of the white Witwatersrand suburb to a meager existence in huts that leak, among roaming pigs that feed on human excrement, surrounding bushes that serve for convenience, and drunken women who stagger to pee on the sidewalk with babies strapped on their backs. What is even more disturbing is the smoothness with which the Smales children adapt to their new environment, squatting with the black children over a lunch of “mealie-meal” with bare hands, wiping their behind with stones, and playing among shit-smeared toilet rolls blowing in the air. In effect, the powerful machinery of hunger overdetermines all pretences of civilization.

The black revolution never really happens, but Gordimer is, like Campbell, questioning the political validity of white liberalism. July’s People is therefore a prophecy of what could happen in the face of a total breakdown in the quality of human relationship in South Africa. Niceties and decency which mark the pre-revolutionary interchange of the Smales and their black servant are not enough to heal the political wound of apartheid. The treatment the Smales receive from July and his kin shows that hegemonic pendulum and its attendant excess could swing one way or the other and not necessarily the prerogative of any particular race. Maureen suddenly recalls that she had looked on her servants as if they were her creatures like cattle and pigs. Arthur Ravenscroft rightly remarks that it is Gordimer’s shrewd understanding of how the exercise of power at whatever level poisons the human heart that makes her “psychological study of yet another unlovely white South African an enterprise that is also politically just and relevant” (Ravenscroft 132). Like Gordimer, Campbell also devotes the two short poems “On Some South African Novelists” and “On the Same” to satirizing artistic non-commitment.

Whatever literature has produced so far in its representations of sociopolitical dilemma in Africa, no other writer has produced a work of such boundless sweep of imponderable hunger on an African society – in relation to the stark reality of ugliness, infinite reaches of human depravity, and the enormity of its moral wasteland – as Coetzee’s Disgrace. Not even Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set on the River Congo could come close, for it is only the apartheid regime in South Africa that could make such a total collapse of human life-force possible. Coetzee’s protagonist in Disgrace, David Lurie, a once-distinguished professor of English at a Cape Town university, falls from grace after he is dismissed from his college position on charges of statutory rape of a female student. He withdraws to Grahamstown to stay with his lesbian daughter who lives with her dogs and cats and wears “asexual clothes.” On encountering Bev Shaw, director of the Animal Welfare League, Lurie quickly degenerates into “a dog-man: a dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp; a harijan” (Disgrace 146). “The dogs that are brought in,” as the narrator broods, “suffer from distempers, from broken limbs, from infected bites, from mange, from neglect, benign or malign, from old age, from malnutrition, from intestinal parasites, but most of all from their own fertility” (142).

Lurie’s job is to assist Bev Shaw in killing the too many different kinds of sick animals that are littered all over the place. Then he packs them up for disposal at the incinerator after the carcasses have spent a night in the automobile parked at his lodging. He wakes up very early everyday prepared to make new corpses. He tells his daughter: “As for the animals, by all means let us be kind to them. But let us not lose our perspective. We are a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, just different. So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution” (74). When the preceding statement is related to Bev Shaw’s “Animal Welfare League W. O. 1529,” a disturbing pattern emerges between Coetzee’s fictive invention and the anthropomorphism of his European forbears who settled in the South African Cape in 1652. As historical allegories, Coetzee’s narratives could be read as mimic fiction.

In the earlier Life & Times of Michael K, Coetzee’s caricature Michael, a genetic garbage, escapes into the primitive Karoo countryside where he spends many hours and days scheming how to trap mountain wild goats. While a war rages all around, Michael lives in a hole occasionally emerging to plant, water, and eat his hidden pumpkins. Michael’s escapist doctrine is that human survival in such a state of anomy is dependent on one’s ability to live like a beast. He is said to be “like stone, a pebble, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time … An unbearing, unborn creature” (Life 135). It is Coetzee’s disturbing treatment of his subjects that necessitates Ravenscroft’s cautionary critique of the characterization of Michael. Reading the novel, says Ravenscroft, “raises afresh the question whether the extremes of experienced human suffering … can be conveyed in art, other than wholly symbolically, without appalling offence being done to the everyday dignity of human nature” (129). In other words, the repetitive, Europhilic portrayal of latter-day noble savagery that runs through Coetzean fiction calls for much more than the uncritical fawning and adulation which enable masked outrage against civilized taste and ethnic concerns to escape clear-eyed scrutiny. That is why Salman Rushdie accuses Coetzee of “cold detachment” and calls the discourse of Disgrace “heartless” – and worse than “rubble literature” – for being “part of the darkness it describes.” “For a character to justify himself by claiming not to understand his motives is one thing; for the novelist to collude in that justification is quite another” (Rushdie 298).1

Campbell’s poem “The Zulu Girl” (30-31) portrays the haunting image of a young Zulu mother, who works between hoeing the farmland and breastfeeding her baby under the steamy sun. As the sleeping baby suckles, his flesh imbibes “An old unquenchable unsmotherable heat -/ The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes/ The sullen dignity of their tribes.” Campbell presents a visual immediacy of the looming form of the mother’s body, protective and nurturing her infant for the terrible cloud that bears an approaching harvest in its breast. Another poem “The Serf,” presents a ploughman patiently working through the green like a somnambulist. His heart bears the burden of insults as memories assail him of war cries of the past and tribal spears that were fatal. Yet he doggedly works to plough down palaces, thrones, and towers.

Much of South African literature is set in a miraginary garden or a chimera. The Edenic image of South Africa which is inscribed in the psyche of the first European settlers forecloses the primordial savagery that ravaged the Paradise. Coetzee calls attention to the preoccupation of South African writers with exploring the intrusion of evil and violence in their society (White Writing 14). Campbell, in his poem “Horses on the Camarge,” observes that “the great white breakers” have transformed the garden into “the grey wastes of dread” by turning the natives into slaves and letting ghosts haunt the land. In “The Wayzgoose” Campbell’s persona bewails a land torn by shells and “fat white sheep,” where donkeys grow into statesmen, “worms the size of magistrates,” and the tadpole becomes a journalist. The genius of the poem is Campbell’s discovery that hunger and parasites are in a symbiotic siege on Eden:

The “garden colony” they call our land,
And surely for a garden it was planned:
What apter phrase with such a place could cope
Where vegetation has so fine a scope,
Where weeds in such variety are found
And all the rarest parasites abound,
Where pumpkins to professors are promoted
And turnips into Parliament are? (243)

Behind the shrapnel of Campbell’s sarcasm is his attempt to describe the breakdown of the fountain cords of life. In “Death of the Bull,” the poet sings that “a wound that never heals/ rills forth the lily-scented blood.” “A Jug of Water” also persists in the pursuit of a phallic ghost in the character of “A Masquer so anonymously white/ Who smiles without a face.” In “Christ in Uniform,” the persona cries out against the waste of blood and desire as two lovers on the couch of joy collapse “with a strangled cheer.” Campbell’s “The Theology of Bongwi, the Baboon” (17) satirizes white Christology. An ape sits in the forest yelping at the moon: “Tis God who made me in His shape/ He is a Great Baboon.” In death, sings the ape, this loving God will raise him from the sod to teach the perfect “Mischief” of heaven, “The Nimbleness of God.” Campbell castigates the church of South Africa for supporting apartheid, just as the American church supported slavery. It is this God of racial and material deception of Campbell’s poetry that the black South African writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, describes as an intellectualized God who lacks meaning to the African (xxiv). The anthropologist Jean Comarrof pushes a thesis of existential immolation in her lecture “Alien-nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millenial Capitalism in South Africa,” by arguing that the South African body is like a grave – a place in which God had died.

If Campbell is the high priest of the death of love, Gordimer is the goddess. In July’s People Maureen Smales watches with deepening repulsion at the shattered ego of her once beloved husband, Bam. She blackmails her former black servant, July, threatening to tell his wife of his urban girlfriend. Ravenscroft notes that the crudity of exposing her breasts to Bam without a shred of sexual intimacy matches her drowning the superfluous litter of kittens. She finally abandons her husband and children and races off at the sound of a helicopter.

In Coetzee’s Disgrace Lurie watches as three black men come into her daughter’s farm home and take turns to rape Lucy. Lurie himself is beaten, tied up, locked in a toilet, and set on fire. Though he survives the assault, it is Lucy’s repressed acceptance of the experience that shocks him. Worst of all Lucy looks forward to having the baby from gang rapes. In July’s People July does not show surprise that Dan his kinsman steals Bam’s gun, and he initially denies knowing Dan’s whereabouts. In Disgrace Lucy’s black assistant, Petrus, shows no surprise at the rape of Lucy by three black men who are known to him. Like July, he denies knowing Pollux, his teenage nephew who is one of the rapists. Pollux comes back to live on the farm under the protection of Petrus. July takes over Bam’s car, and Petrus prepares to take over Lucy’s farm with a proposal to make her his second wife.

What both Coetzee and Gordimer are describing is the process of cold-blooded divestiture of arbitrary white dominance. Lucy, Maureen, and the Smales children understand and accept the coming of change. Bam Smales and David Lurie could not accept change as a fact and that creates a new tension in white family relations. Maureen antagonizes her husband, Bam, and runs away; Lucy antagonizes her father, Lurie, and he moves out of the farm. Campbell, Coetzee, and Gordimer emphasize the fluidity of signifiers in the interracial signifying chain. Miraginary subject positions are magnified via the tragicomic schema of identification, meconnaissance, and anamorphic chiasma. All the texts under analysis represent the psychotic subject’s emergence from the unconscious sleep of innocence to the recognition of the contestable space of the father.
A major factor that marks the dislocation of communication between whites and blacks in the texts under review is the use of language. In July’s People Maureen observes that the native work hands speak the “bastard” black lingua franca of the mines, whose vocabulary was limited to the “orders given by whites and responses by blacks” (July’s 45). The English language spoken by the black servant, July, is learned in the kitchens, factories, and mines, and it is not based on exchange of ideas and feelings. By the time of his final confrontation with Maureen at the end of the novel, July has abandoned Maureen’s alien language to spar against her in his own identitarian ethnic language. Similar verbal confrontation recurs in Disgrace.

Under apartheid blacks need the oppressive English language to gain employment in the mines and white homes. In the revolutionary dismantling of the apartheid machinery blacks have no further use of the colonial language because the erstwhile agencies of oppression, like the land, mines, and institutions – qua metonymic “ideological state apparatuses” (Althusser) – have been recovered. In his poem “The Flaming Terrapin” (59-93) Campbell shows how the imperial ship (“cruising shark”) lifts tons of gold through River Congo. In his novel Mine Boy Peter Abrahams portrays the oppressive workings of apartheid labor in which the mines often collapse and kill the trapped black workers, and the black workers generally develop lung cancer and die young. With the fall of apartheid and subsequent transfer of its self-perpetuating technologies the notorious white power of linguistic objectification simply disappears.

It is necessary, in conclusion, to draw attention to the pervasive social crisis in South Africa. Raphael de Kadt had imagined that post-apartheid South Africa will be concerned with “the problems of urbanization, poverty and economic growth” (Kadt 57-58). Available evidence, however, points to underlying problems of continuing historical hunger of race and sex, coupled with the devastation of an as yet incurable disease. In fact, Lucy in Disgrace demands that Lurie should stop calling the land on which they live a farm or garden, something pure, untainted, and innocent. She is more worried that her rapists act with hate and behave like “tax collectors.” The unborn baby is a conception of hateful sex. “They do rape,” Lucy’s words ring with horror (Disgrace 158). The young rapists do not believe that they owe anyone any moral obligation, least of all the white population. In other words, they act with vengeance. This is the prophecy of such visionary white writers as Campbell, Gordimer, and Athol Fugard, and the warning of such black compatriots as Dennis Brutus, Alex la Guma, and Can Themba. In differing styles and forms they all contend with the possibility of an Eden without the corruptive agency – or excess – of a serpentine order of Adam and Eve, a pre-Adamic pristine conception of art and creation. South African literature as sign becomes a prime instance of writing as an excess of an excess, an unattainable part-object, an unfillable hole of desire, a jouissance of the symbolic order, a remainder of a remainder.

The high incidence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa suggests a link to the epidemic of rape violence in the country. In an alarming essay “Africa’s Plague and Everybody’s AIDS,” Gordimer writes that there were one thousand seven hundred HIV infections in South Africa everyday in 1999. Four million South Africans had tested positive to the HIV virus in a national population of forty-three million people. Other report indicates that over two million Africans died of AIDS in 2006 alone, the bulk of which were apparently in Southern Africa (Sawyer). Gordimer’s outcry (which recalls the epigraphs from Rose, Clingman, and Coetzee) points to the thrust of this essay: “For there will be a cure discovered, there will be a vaccine – and after that? How shall we restore the quality of human relations that have been debased, shamed, reduced to the source of a fatal disease?” (“Africa’s Plague” A29).

The social emergency of historical hunger is the moral dilemma of a racist state. South Africa has triumphed over the glitter of gold and the pain of apartheid, but will the return of virtuous power end the hegemony of surplus passion and primal violence? Campbell, Gordimer, and Coetzee demonstrate the escape of redemptive emotional bond from a mindless pursuit of perfunctory desire. Their work illustrates the solitary reign of vicious excess in every structure overwhelmed by greed, disease, and death.

1. See my forthcoming essay “Secret/aries of In(san)ity: J. M. Coetzee’s Male/diction,” for the historicizing of Coetzee’s “intellectual allegiance” to western alienists.

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